BY ABBY BAKER '19
Best-selling author Roxane Gay appeared at Mount Holyoke College on Feb. 16. She spoke on topics ranging from the writing process to the current presidential administration. Gay, a writer of both fiction and nonfiction, is well-known for works such as “Bad Feminist,” “Difficult Women” and “An Untamed State,” as well as numerous articles, short stories and one comic series.
Gay read selections from “Difficult Women,” her short story collection that was published in January. The first piece she read, “Open Marriage,” was inspired by a yogurt commercial for Activia. On the story’s inspiration, Gay said, “I was watching a yogurt commercial for Activia with Jamie Lee Curtis... and I thought, I want to be that happy. I want to be as happy as Jamie Lee Curtis is after eating Activia.” Gay also read a story comprised of vignettes set in Florida, inspired by her own travels to the state.
In the Q&A session that followed, Gay discussed her recent decision to withdraw from a book deal with prominent publishing house Simon & Schuster following the news that the company was offering a book deal to conservative commentator and former Breitbart editor Milo Yiannopoulos. According to the New York Times, Yiannopoulos has made “provocative, critical statements about Muslims, transgender people, immigrants and women’s rights” and famously led a Twitter campaign against comedian Leslie Jones following her role in the 2016 “Ghostbusters” reboot. The campaign, which featured a barrage of racist and sexist tweets directed at Jones by online trolls, led Jones to quit Twitter and Twitter to suspend Yiannopoulos’s account.
“I just couldn’t bring myself to A, finish [the book], and B, give it to them and give them a best seller. They just don’t deserve it,” Gay told the audience. She noted that though many authors could not afford to make the same choice, “There are a lot of very wealthy authors on Simon & Schuster who could afford to do this and they didn’t, and so that was disappointing.” Gay assured the audience that her book, “How To Be Heard,” will be published through a different publishing company. On Feb. 20, just a few days after Gay’s visit to campus, Simon & Schuster dropped Yiannopoulos’s $250,000 book contract following controversy over comments he made that appeared to condone pedophilia, according to the New York Times.
Several audience members sought Gay’s advice on responding to sexist comments in everyday life. Gay encouraged audience members to expend their efforts wisely, noting that it is not the job of the
individual to enlighten another person. “Save your energy for something that matters,” she advised. “Go volunteer or write something. Just do something else with your time.”
Gay also discussed this year’s Oscar nominees, noting that though the 2017 Oscar nominees remain predominantly white, this year marks a “step in the right direction” for the awards show. She expects that “La La Land” will beat “Moonlight” for Best Picture, which she acknowledged “hurts.” Gay also spoke of her admiration for Viola Davis’ performance in “Fences,” though she added that Davis should have been nominated in the Best Actress category instead of the Best Supporting Actress category. “I don’t know how many of you have seen Fences, but she’s not supporting a damn thing,” Gay said.
One of the essays in Bad Feminist explores Gay’s experiences playing competitive Scrabble, which she also discussed in the Q&A session. Gay explained that when she moved to eastern Illinois to teach, she “was in the middle of a cornfield” and in need of an activity. A colleague introduced her to Scrabble and she fell in love. “I started going to tournaments and it’s this whole secret world and it’s incredible,” she said. She is ranked in the hundreds.
When discussing the election and current presidential administration, Gay noted, “Truth is our greatest ally and our greatest weapon right now.” Gay added that she believes American democracy will withstand President Donald Trump, noting that she is “impressed by how checks and balances are holding up.” Her worry, however, is for those who “don’t have the luxury of waiting out four years.” As a writer of both fiction and nonfiction, she also emphasized the importance of fiction and all art in efforts to “challenge the status quo.”
Gay also stated that while she was encouraged by the Women’s March, “Like many black people, I was wondering where you all were for Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin and Sandra Bland and the list goes on and on.”
At one point during the Q&A session, an audience member interjected that some of the questions asked were, “tokenizing, like, hey, you’re black, how do you feel about all these things?”
Sophie Desnoyers ’19, who attended the event, said, “I think what I got from her talk was that even though there are battles you can’t win or can’t even fight, you should always try to fight in your way.”
Becky Wai-Ling Packard is the Director of Mount Holyoke’s Weissman Center for Leadership, which sponsored the event. According to Packard, Gay’s speech ties in with the Weissman Center’s current theme of imagination.
Packard said, “Imagination is a muscle to exercise, and while it has the power to move us creatively forward, our imaginations are sometimes constrained by fear. Roxane Gay embodies courage and the need to challenge our collective imagination about our identities."